Managing My Digital Rights

I have four copies of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There’s the original vinyl, the vinyl picture disk (unopened, no less), the cassette version that I bought before I had a CD player but after I stopped listening to records, and the CD version. All are original, genuine copies, obtained legally.

CDWhy did I have to buy it four times? I didn’t. Even discounting the picture disk, I really only needed to buy it twice. I could have copied the vinyl to cassette. But I still would have had to repurchase to get the CD. There are lots of things I have multiple legal copies of, including Dark Side of the Moon, Band on the Run, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, and most of the Springsteen catalog. If I were a few years older, I would have had 8-tracks of all of these, too.

Though no one talks about it, the media companies make huge sums of money from repurchases. Every time there’s a new format, everyone goes out and buys new copies of everything. We now have The Little Mermaid on both VHS and DVD. How much of the $25 for that movie went to recoup production costs? None. It was paid for long ago, even before the first limited-release VHS version. This is all gravy.

But digital media is threatening that. I can take my current CD of Dark Side of the Moon and rip it into mp3 files that will play on my computer or mp3 player. This is legal in the United States as long as I’m not distributing copies of it (though there are currently challenges to these fair use provisions in the Canadian parliament). The music industry would rather I not do that. It would be much better if I went to the iTunes Music Store and purchased it. Then, I could listen to it on my computer, or sync it to my iPod(tm). Except I don’t have an iPod. I have a Sandisk Sansa. So I’d be out of luck, because songs purchased in iTunes won’t work on most other mp3 players. I could choose Microsoft’s Zune instead. If I had purchased music in the iTunes music store, I could simply repurchase them in the Zune store. Then, I could listen to them on my computer using the Zune software, or on my Zune portable media device. But I couldn’t listen to them in Windows Media Player, because it’s incompatible. And if I had purchased content that uses Microsoft’s PlaysForSure copy protection technology, it wouldn’t work on the Zune.

Needless to say, consumers are getting a little fed up with all of the digital rights management (DRM) technology. American Public Media’s Future Tense recently reported that iTunes rival eMusic has sold its 100 millionth song. While that’s tiny compared to the volume iTunes generates, it’s not bad for a company that only has 2 million songs. They attribute their success largely to the fact that they don’t use DRM technology.

Meanwhile, the music industry is realizing that everything is at stake. Artists don’t need record deals to get on the pop charts anymore. They can distribute their music online by themselves. The physical music stores are continuing to vanish, and even Amazon.Com appears to be getting into the online music business, which will no doubt cut into CD sales. Pushing harder on the DRM issue is just convincing consumers that they don’t need the big media companies.
What about me? First of all, I’ve decided that I’m done re-purchasing old music in new formats. And I’m not really buying all that much new music anymore. The stuff I do buy mostly comes from independent artists without major labels. But when I do buy music, I’m still going to opt for the CD. Then I can just rip it and play it where I want. I prefer to manage my own digital rights.

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Author: John Schinker

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